EVIAN-LES-BAINS, FRANCE — There are parties every night at the Evian Masters, always capped by fireworks at the Hotel Royal high on the hill above this quaint resort town on Lake Geneva. The Evian may not become an LPGA major championship until 2013, but Franck Riboud, the chairman and CEO of tournament owner Danone, a $40 billion company — and that’s a lot of yogurt and bottled water — has always treated the players in a major way.
There are precious few stops on any pro golf tour that combine natural beauty, luxurious accommodations and just plain fun as successfully as the Evian. There is another little tournament with the name “Masters” in its title that spoils its participants this way, but Washington Road in Augusta, Ga., will never be confused with Rue Nationale in Evian, just as no one would ever confuse Evian GC with Augusta National GC.
This event began as a Ladies European Tour stop in 1994 and became co-sanctioned as an LPGA event in 2000, the year before the Weetabix Women’s British Open — now the Ricoh — became an LPGA major. That created a compelling two-week European swing — a $3.2 million purse at Evian followed by a major — but this is the last year they will be played together.
Next week, the Ricoh Women’s British Open will be played at Carnoustie and next year it will be at Royal Liverpool, but in September, so as not to conflict with the Olympic Games in London. In 2013, the Women’s British will return to its late July date while the Evian moves to September so as not to have majors on consecutive weeks.
The last year of what for a decade was a dynamic pairing of events produced an incredibly memorable tournament. When play began Sunday, Ai Miyazato, whose first LPGA victory was at Evian in 2009, was at 13-under par and had a two-stroke lead over Ran Hong, her playing partner in the final round, Angela Stanford, Stacy Lewis and Miki Saiki.
When the smoke cleared — and before the final fireworks display of the week — an emotional Miyazato was 15-under par and holding the championship trophy and receiving a kiss on each cheek by Riboud and tournament director Jacques Bungert. Augusta National chairman Billy Payne almost never plants a smooch on the guy slipping into the green jacket at that other Masters — another way this event is different.
The triumph, the seventh of Miyazato’s LPGA career to go with 15 in Japan, was a quietly dominating performance by a player whose swing has a hypnotic tempo that could put even strong French coffee to sleep. She went out in 33 to extend her lead to three strokes then held off Lewis, who got as close as one stroke before a bogey on No. 16 after a poor wedge shot ended the suspense, by two strokes with a 70.
“I was nervous this morning, but I really trusted myself,” Miyazato said, the trophy resting near her, along with other spoils of the victory, like a new Rolex. “‘Even when the lead was down to one stroke, I was in no hurry,” she said. “I kind of expected that to happen.”
Miyazato, whose first LPGA victory was at Evian in 2009, was emotional that day because she finally proved she could win away from her home tour, which she had dominated with a dozen victories before joining the LPGA. This time she was playing for a greater cause — her embattled homeland.
“This year, I really felt like I was playing for Japan and not myself,” Miyazato said after getting her first win of the year. “It was so difficult early in the season with what was going on with the earthquake in Japan,” she said about her slow start this season. Miyazato said she would give some or all of the $487,500 she won to the foundation she created with other Japanese female players to aid in earthquake and tsunami relief.
“This is my favorite tournament,” Miyazato said, “and I am so happy to win, especially right now. We are having some tough times in Japan.” As she stood on the 18th green for the closing ceremony, a team of three skydivers jumped from a helicopter, two carrying the flag of France and the third with the flag of Japan. When he landed on the green he handed the flag to Miyazato, who broke down during her acceptance speech delivered in flawless English.
This has been a good stretch for female athletes from Japan. First they won the Women’s World Cup in soccer, and now Miyazato collects the second-largest check in women’s golf, ranking only behind the U.S. Women’s Open. More importantly, the Evian Masters acquired another priceless moment to add to its memory bank.
Officially, the Evian becomes a major in 2013, but really it has been acting like one for more than a decade. The classy way in which it handled Miyazato’s victory — delivering the flag of Japan with the skydivers, making certain the tragedy in Japan was never overshadowed by a mere golf tournament — is just another example of how hard Riboud and Bungert work to make the players feel appreciated.
There will be a lot of talk going forward about the pros and cons of having five major championships, and that will be an interesting — and no doubt lengthy — debate. But there is no debate about this: The Evian Masters is one great golf tournament, and this year it produced the absolutely perfect winner. It produced a major moment.
— Ron Sirak